Violence, slurs tarnish Lebanon parliamentary poll
BEIRUT, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Lebanese start voting for a new parliament on Sunday in an election already marred by mud-slinging, sporadic violence and charges that the pro-Syrian government has rigged the outcome.
About 1.3 million registered voters in the north and Mount Lebanon, the Christian heartland, will kick off the two-stage election, the third since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Beirut, the Bekaa Valley and the south, including territory occupied by Israel from 1978 to May this year, will vote on the following Sunday.
Independent observers and politicians say neighbouring Syria, whose hegemony over Lebanon is assured by the presence of 35,000 Syrian troops in the country, has ordained the result.
``These elections are a formality, they are hollow, a tedious farce,'' said Hassan Krayim, head of the Lebanese Association for Democracy of Elections, an independent election observer.
``Unfortunately, Syria and the government it has selected have made sure that the results are a foregone conclusion.''
``Out of the 128 seats, the government has already decided who will occupy at least 100, and of course these are its supporters.''
Politicians including Druze leader Walid Jumblatt who is running for parliament have accused the government, which is vetted by Syria, of trying to rig the elections.
They say last year's election law arranged constituencies to suit candidates favoured by the government and Syria.
``The president (Emile Lahoud) and part of his entourage are using all means, from security agencies to the military, to fight us. The aim is to disrupt the minimum of civil society that exists,'' Jumblatt told Reuters in a recent interview.
GOVERNMENT ACCUSED OF SMEARS
The government has been accused of using state-run television to smear opponents, particularly former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a billionaire who has spent lavishly in an apparent bid to secure a parliament that would reinstate him.
Sporadic violence in the election run-up has included stun grenades lobbed at opposition candidates' homes and at polling stations. One man has been slightly injured.
``This campaign is the fiercest in the country's history,'' wrote Toufik Meshlawi, editor of the Middle East Reporter newsletter.
``Money, the media and the secret service are the three main villains polluting the current campaign.''
In the north and Mount Lebanon, 286 candidates are running for 63 seats. Hundreds more are contesting the poll in other areas.
Mount Lebanon is the stage for a high-stakes battle between pro-Syrian Interior Minister Michel al-Murr and businessman Nassib Lahoud, a cousin of the president and a former ambassador to Washington.
Lahoud faced Murr, whose daughter is married to the president's son, in the 1996 elections and both won seats. This year, he has accused Murr of using ``gangster tactics'' to influence voting.
The Interior Ministry says that 2.75 million Lebanese have registered to vote, which observers say is an improbably high number out of an estimated population of four million.
CHRISTIAN BOYCOTT CALL
Three Christian parties have urged Lebanese to join their boycott of the election to protest at the Syrian presence. Their leader Dory Chamoun, who has not taken part in elections since 1992, contends that the sectarianism still dividing Lebanon will ease after Syrian troops leave.
Two independent deputies, including maverick politician Najah Wakim, have withdrawn from the contest partly in protest at foreign intervention.
Other Christians have criticised Syria's interference, but not as directly. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir voiced his disgust at the poll, telling Lebanese to vote only for worthy candidates -- and making clear he felt none fitted the bill.
However, the Christian opposition is less tangible than it was in the 1996 elections when Christians in Mount Lebanon made a major effort to win a big turnout for anti-Syrian candidates in protest at what they said was Syrian abuse of Lebanon's sovereignty.
Analysts say the current elections are being contested more on local issues.
``In Mount Lebanon, more local issues are at play. Clearly, there are attempts by the official agencies and their rivals to mobilise the people,'' said Michael Young, editor of the Lebanon Report.
The elections are run on sectarian lines, with the 128 seats divided equally among Moslems and Christians. These shares are sub-divided between each of the 18 recognised religious sects.
The new parliament, like the present house, will have 27 Shi'ite Moslems, 27 Sunni Moslems, eight Druze and two Alawites.
The Christians will have 34 Maronites, 14 Greek Orthodox, eight Roman
Catholics, five Armenian Greek Orthodox, one Armenian Roman Catholic, one
Anglican and one member of another Christian minority, currently an Assyrian.
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